The Matrix (1999), dir. Lana & Lilly Wachowski

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It’s remarkable one of the most influential films of the past two decades was directed by two trans women, earning $450 million against its $60 million budget. Celebrating the achievement of Patty Jenkins obscures the major financial success of The Matrix, or high profile female directors like Kathryn Bigelow. In a male-dominated industry, Hollywood gave the Wachowski sisters power because they passed as male, but they have struggled with their gender identities since childhood.

Keanu Reeves, embodying queerness in My Own Private Idaho (1991), masculine action hero who gets the girl in Speed (1994), becomes our audience avatar as programmer Neo, because the audience is assumed to be male. But the Wachowski sisters explore queer themes in films like their debut neo-noir Bound (1996), shot on a $6 million budget, or Cloud Atlas (2012), splitting the soul between hundreds of worlds and bodies, although problematic in its gender and racial fluidity; while including trans characters like Nomi in Sense8 (2015-present).

Many trans writers have interpreted The Matrix as a trans narrative. E.A. Lockhart reflects thatlife early in transition felt a lot like being Neo”, finding solace knowing the Wachowskis went through a similar process. Marcy Cook argues The Matrix is “Lana’s (and maybe Lilly’s) soul laid bare” as “the most successful transgender-focused movie ever made”, through dualities between the dream world and the real world. For Cook, Neo and Thomas Anderson represent two identities, asserting his identity as Neo “in defiance of death”. As she argues, “trans people are always playing two roles” between societal expectations and relationships between friends, family and coworkers. Cook positions Morpheus as the “transgender elder”, guiding Neo’s fate between the red and blue pill without making the choice for him.

The Matrix is never an explicitly trans narrative; the only time the word ‘trans’ appears is as prefix in computer code. Yet signs are there. The Wachowskis create Cronenbergian body horror as the Bug forcefully probes Neo’s stomach during his interrogation, reflecting a sense of bodily dysphoria. As an emaciated body within a vat, unable to speak, Cook argues Neo represents transitioning through HRT and surgery. Through androgynous characters like Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Switch, the Wachowskis challenge expectations around masculinity and femininity. As Neo tells Trinity, “I thought you were a guy!”; she retorts that “most guys do”. 

With its challenging of gender expectations, The Matrix is the late 90s. It’s about as 90s as Sandstorm, from black leather jackets to a grunge soundtrack, mixing Marilyn Manson, Prodigy, Rage Against the Machine and Rammstein.

The early 90s, like the 80s, is becoming nostalgic, from clothing to aesthetics, resurrecting Power Rangers (2017) and series like Fuller House (2016-present). Yet, as someone growing up with late 90s and early 00s culture, it’s off limits. The late 90s isn’t cool.

The late 90s represent crossroads between two centuries and millennia. As we look through the TV set in the Construct at the society we are, the destiny of the red and blue pill is ultimately a question of where we have come so far, and where society goes from here. Our crossroads isn’t merely between 1999 and 2000, but 2199. Just as The War of the Worlds (1898) looked towards the growing global conflict of the oncoming century, The Matrix embodies contemporary anxieties. In retrospect, we see the society arising out of this: the post-9/11 world of an altered global outlook with new online fears. Neo jumps between two buildings, falling to the ground perfectly unscathed. A building explodes in a fireball; this isn’t controversial. In the lobby shootout, Neo and Trinity pass through security guards with guns, but remain heroes, not anti-American terrorists.

As Todd McCarthy, David Thompson and John Powers argue on the film’s critic commentary, Neo represents a ‘slacker’ archetype: an ordinary (white) guy, working in an office cubicle for Metacortex, alienated from society, dishevelled and skinny. Neo isn’t so far apart from the disillusionment of Tyler Durden in Fight Club the same year, embodying anti-consumerist disenfranchisement:

You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis.

As Carrie-Ann Moss describes in an interview in The Matrix Revisited (2001), the film reflects a “sense of wanting to be free, of not wanting to be controlled, to fight the norm, or to fight people telling you how things should be”. The Matrix positions itself as social critique in opposition to the modern world of capitalism, deregulation and population growth. Neo walks through crowds caught in a trance in the final scene, awoken. Agent Smith wants to rebuild the world as a better one, at the peak of civilisation, dismissing the notion of a perfect world, reflecting a search for a new American identity. Trans writers have suggested these anti-establishment feelings also reflect the trans experience: Neo escapes the institutional system of oppression built upon erasure, bathroom bills and medical gatekeeping. In her speech as recipient of the HRC Visibility Award, Lana Wachowski spoke of her experience of institutional control:

In Catholic school the girls wear skirts, the boys play pants. I am told I have to cut my hair. I want to play Four Square with the girls but now I’m one of them — I’m one of the boys. Early on I am told to get in line after a morning bell, girls in one line, boys in another.

Yet 1999 signals another societal shift: the internet. The Matrix is not so much about the internet as we understand it today, but the Internet, capital I. From the opening sequence, juxtaposing the green computer code of the Matrix against the Warner Bros logo, signals we’re in for something radical, looking to the future. In part, it acts as a manifesto in line with other cyber and techno-utopians around this era. In his closing monologue, Neo declares the rise of “a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries” where “anything is possible”. John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration for the Independence of Cyberspace isn’t so different, declaring “cyberspace does not lie within [governments’] borders”. Theorists like Manuel Castells, in his Information Age trilogy (1996-98), began to grapple with the implications of the internet as a separate realm of existence, whilst films like Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Pi (1998) posed similar questions.

The Matrix’s world is transitional. Its bulky, white shell computer monitors with Matrix code evoke the green monochrome displays of the 80s. Our world is tangible: the cellphones are Nokias, Neo has a landline, the internet isn’t everywhere. On the Nebuchadnezzar, concept designer Geofrey Darrow sought to create a dirty and used world made of detritus, in opposition to the stainless steel worlds of sci-fi: an almost post-internet world. When Neo is silenced by the agents, his gooey mouth sewed shut, relates an era where this was an existential question, where verbal communication was our primary form of contact, without anyone to instant message. For Marcy Cook, this represents a sense of “yelling into the void”, when trans people were “unable to defend” themselves, before the internet allowed for greater trans awareness and the growth of online communities.

We approach the internet through the backend, within infrastructure as we witness the déjà vu of glitches in the Matrix. Neo, as a hacker, has a modern analogue in luminaries like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, or angry trolls on message boards, locked within his messy bedroom. But the internet is evolving into an internet of experiences. From Wi-Fi in cafes to Pokémon Go to transmedia technology, digital augmentation creates an internet not as a separate realm as The Matrix presupposes, but embedded as an extension of our environments and senses. Through VR and 360 videos, the internet opens questions around posthumanism and transhumanism.

In part, The Matrix builds upon existing science fiction tropes. Its post-apocalyptic dystopia is not worlds apart from The Terminator (1984), whilst the journey in the Nebuchadnezzar feels like the Millennium Falcon. Grounding its science fiction in theory, the Wachowskis asked Keanu Reeves to read books, handing him copies of Simulacra and Simulation, Out of Control and Evolutionary Psychology, asking philosophical questions. As Reeves comments in The Matrix Revisited, “[y]ou can get meaning out of anything. You can make that reason whatever you want.” For Baudrillard, reality has become hyperreal, a fairy tale, where simulations of reality – our consumer culture – have become more real than reality itself.

In its science fiction worldbuilding, The Matrix expanded beyond its trilogy into videogames, graphic novels and online content, becoming what Henry Jenkins describes in Convergence Culture (2006) as “entertainment for the age of media convergence”, creating a “horizontally integrated” form of narrative storytelling ensuring “consumer loyalty”. Franchises like Star Wars, through the Lucasfilm Story Group, have become more transmedia than ever, collaborating ideas and connecting elements between Rebels, The Clone Wars, its novels and Rogue One (2016), requiring wider knowledge.

The Matrix goes beyond science fiction, combining an intertextuality of elements from heist films, martial arts, John Woo-esque action, anime, videogames; creating a Moebius-esque vastness of worlds, and FBI-esque agents straight out of the 1960s. The Wachowskis enlisted Yuen Woo-ping, legend of Asian cinema for films like Drunken Master (1978), as stunt coordinator. As Jenkins argues, the Wachowski sisters “positioned themselves as oracles”, offering fans “cryptic comments”, allowing them to deconstruct the film’s allusions for themselves. In the film’s opening tease, we follow Trinity as central protagonist fighting cops, in martial arts formation as ‘the eagle’, running sideways across a wall. As Patrick H Willems deconstructs in his video essay How to Begin a Movie, this scene plays off of noir elements through chiaroscuro, vertical lines and shadows, while utilising superhero powers as she jumps between roofs and through windows.

Yet The Matrix is radical in another area: CGI. The late 90s and early 00s are filled with CGI that look like a bad hangover today, from Naboo in The Phantom Menace (1999) to Garfield in the real world in Garfield (2004), before the photorealism of Grand Moff Tarkin, or CGI existing entirely unnoticed. From its anime-esque bullet time, cellphones falling from hundreds of stories, sentinels, electricity, fire, or morphing in the telephone booth, The Matrix told its story as spectacle, becoming part of its aesthetic through the advancements of digital editing. From liquid mirrors made of mercury, to reflections within warping spoons, The Matrix pushed the envelope, yet still used practical effects to ground itself within reality, like the animatronic baby in one sequence.

The Matrix questions what can be done within the cinematic medium, simultaneously questioning our notions of reality. Delving into dream worlds, The Matrix questions human experience and how we ascribe meaning. As far back as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978), science fiction attempted to grapple with the construction of our own world. But this is a real field of study. In 2016, tech entrepreneur Elon Musk became viral for suggesting our own existence is a simulation, based on our shift from “pong, two rectangles and a dot” to “photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously”.

Subverting the tropes of the cyberpunk movement, The Matrix ascribes our own world as the fake world. Driving through Chinatown, we see the inauthenticity: using Hitchcockian rear-screen projection in the car, the world becomes dreamy, defocused with saturated colours. The Wachowski sisters shift the colour timing of each scene between green and blue, drawing a visual duality between the real world and the matrix.

Neo, like us, has experienced the matrix from birth, seeing it as organic. Reality is a sensory experience. As Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) tells Neo, “real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain”. Cypher eats a steak, knowing full well the steak is not real. On the Nebuchadnezzar, their goopy food attempts to recreate the taste of chicken. Taste buds can be manipulated. The film’s mantra of “this is a spoon” evokes The Treachery of Images (1929): representation, not reality.

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This is not a pipe

Morpheus questions Neo’s disavowal of fate, fearing “not [being] in control of my life”. Yet we aren’t in control: every time we say the wrong thing, drop a pen, do something on instinct, our minds and bodies betray us. Free will scarcely exists. Or, as Marcy Cook argues, not being in control is the “central theme in becoming transgender”, a remolding of existence whilst “fighting your birth” and societal expectations.

Philosophy, as universal thought, can be found in every text, from choices a character makes to fate and destiny. The Matrix immerses itself within it, calling upon the thought experiments of Nozick’s experience machine and Plato’s allegory of the cave, given visual representation. Reality is constructed, from societal expectations, to laws of governance, aspirations and dreams, fashions and incomes. Though we debate universal laws, nothing, or very little, is pre-ordained, varying between different cultures. As Edward Soja argues, physical spaces contain a thirdspace – a real-and-imagined space – built upon materiality and semiotics, political discourses and lived dimensions. Nothing is real, beyond reality itself.

At its core, The Matrix is an exploration of identity. Though the film may play a kiss between Neo and Trinity, it is not a love story. We never follow Neo as he attempts to woo her, or becomes caught in an awkward romantic comedy. The narrative arc is internal. Neo may become a modern messiah, with a prophecy and mythos behind him as saviour, yet these are not the abstract struggles of Jesus, they are our own. Neo loses his identity on the Nebuchadnezzar, placed in identical clothing, yet he never had it in the first place.

Nearly twenty years after its release, we might question whether The Matrix still holds its power. Its CGI, soundtrack and radical aesthetic are horrifically outdated, its genre-bending becoming subsumed in wider pop culture, numerous other science fiction franchises taking its place. As the internet is caught in a frenzy over the notion of making a reboot or sequel or spin-off, there are still stories that could be told. Through the John Wick series (2014-present), Keanu Reeves has become a badass and household name once more, teaming up with stunt double-turned-director Chad Stahelski and Fishburne. Yet The Matrix remains a powerful, multi-layered form of filmmaking, and spectacle.

Doctor Who (1996), dir. Geoffrey Sax

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Is it bad that I love this film so much? Doctor Who is a major part of my identity. The TV Movie was one of my first ventures into classic Who, alongside stories like Survival, cementing McCoy and McGann as, still to this day, two of my favourite Doctors.

But this wasn’t my introduction to Paul McGann’s role as the Doctor. Instead, thank Big Finish. Late 2005 or 2006, I stayed up late for a BBC Radio 7 omnibus broadcast of Shada (2003). Come 2006, I was recording The Stones of Venice, Invaders from Mars and The Chimes of Midnight onto DVD-Rs. By 2007, I was listening to the adventures of the Eighth Doctor and Lucie, before I got distracted and fell behind mid-way through Phobos and promptly gave up (I’ve still yet to catch up). Fans may complain of McGann’s limited appearance – but he already had an era for me, before I came into it.

Perhaps my nostalgia for the film may overshadow it somewhat, but it still holds up as a very competently made backdoor pilot. The production history of the film is very interesting, charting between numerous major (and minor) names, from Steven Spielberg, to Leonard Nimoy, to John Leekley. But there are many names to praise: Alan Yentob, looked more favourably towards the programme than Michael Grade, whilst the failure of The Dark Dimension and Last of the Time Lords helped to pave the way towards its return.  Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher’s government saw the BBC forced to invest more in independent television. Many of the contenders for the part were familiar names, including John Hurt and Peter Capaldi.

If the film feels disjointed, it’s because it was, trying to meet the needs of different producers and parties, melding different drafts together. It kicked into production within weeks of script completion, still undergoing last-minute revisions, and only months before broadcast. The half-human aspect of the Doctor is only a holdover from Leekley’s concept of the show. Leekley’s concept had some interesting elements too – exploring the mythology of Gallifrey, and launching the Doctor into an overarching quest for the scrolls of Rassilon and into the battlegrounds of World War II (which would be explored more during the new series).

Whilst other potential revivals for the series were steeped in nostalgia, the TV Movie sought to move the series forward. Seagal expressed his dismay at the script for The Dark Dimension, whilst Downtime (1995), sought to relive the nostalgia of 1960s and 70s Doctor Who. But the TV Movie’s echoes can be found throughout the new series.

Whilst some of the criticisms laid against the film is that it’s “too Americanised” (I’d retort that it’s “too Canadian”, though filming in Canada is a very American thing to do), that isn’t exactly a criticism. Although some of the CGI effects are a little dated, the production values are high, the sets are designed well, scenes alive with background extras and attention to detail, the editing is solid, and Geoffrey Sax’s direction helps the film a lot. Think of our introduction to Chinatown: we open with the eye of a fish about to be sliced up, as we pan out through a window into the street and Chang Lee running through. It’s the type of direction we rarely even see today. The film never feels completely like a film or completely like a TV pilot – but the cinematography lends it a very cinematic quality. It’s ‘Americanised’ enough to actually be able to afford to license music and lend the world some reality. John Debney’s memorable operatic score (though not recorded by an actual orchestra), shows the potential of a new series, removed from the synth scores of the 80s.

Grace is as strong a companion as any in the new series. She’s a doctor, like Martha. She stands up for the right thing, quitting her job because her superior won’t listen to her curiosity around the anomaly of the Doctor’s two hearts. She drives him away from the hospital, even when she’s unsure. Ultimately, she saves the day.

Like the new series, it fuses multiple genres. In our introduction to Grace, it could be another episode of ER (1994-2009), presenting a sitcom-esque hospital complete with colorful characters, like joke-cracking morgue attendant Pete. During the chase scene, it feels like an action movie. When the Doctor and Grace open the beryllium clock, it might as well be a safe-cracking scene in a heist movie. There are elements of comedy: a cop drives a motorcycle into the TARDIS; Pete faints at the resurrected sight of the Doctor; brainless scientists wave their hands around like “idk”.

The Doctor’s prescience about time steeps him within Earth history, namedropping Puccini, Freud and an “intimate” encounter with Marie Curie. He knows where Gareth will be ten years from now based on a question on his midterm, knows Grace’s future with her ex-boyfriend, and knows where Chang Lee will be in Christmas 2000. But the film is obsessed with time too – continually, we see shots of clocks, whilst the film’s conceit is an atomic clock; as the physical properties of time bends, the film’s resolution turns back time; Grace wants enough time to save a human life, and hold back death.

In many ways, it’s a conventional regeneration story. The Doctor returns to Earth unexpectedly, encounters a new companion initially hesitant towards him, but by the resolution they form a chemistry and have defeated an enemy. One common complaint is that McCoy’s appearance doesn’t give McGann’s Doctor enough time to shine. But it also reframes the narrative in an interesting way: it is a story about life over death, as the Master tries to claim the Doctor’s lives in order to further his own (very much a continuation of his possession of Tremas, creating a ‘final battle’ with the Doctor). We are introduced knowing the Doctor has multiple lives and is immortal of sorts. He conquers life, almost dying because of Grace’s anaesthetic hampering the regenerative process. Life and hope is a central aspect of this Doctor – from a sense of joie de vivre to Molly O’Sullivan as a symbol of hope in Dark Eyes (2012-14), to his  role as a reluctant warrior in The Night of the Doctor (2013).

My main criticisms of Sylvester McCoy’s presence is to do with performance, unfortunately. He performs a handful of lines with mediocre delivery, requiring either a larger role, setting up his demise in the first act, or a smaller role. He dies a small yet very dark death, not a grandiose regeneration story: he exits the TARDIS only to be gunned down, an accident that could have happened anywhere else. Lying on an operating table and forced unconscious under anaesthetic, but he, the unrelenting fan, won’t stop; in a parallel to Frankenstein (1931), brought a new energy of life under the electricity of a storm.

The universe is a dangerous place. It’s refreshing to have a story about regeneration, rather than because of regeneration. Yet the cinematography and editing adds no gravitas to this, acting as a plot device, a necessary event but given little emotion. How much cooler would it have been were we introduced to the story from Lee’s POV (as we are from Rose’s in Rose, discovering the corpse of the Doctor in a disused backalley, thereby leading more ambiguity to the character and allowing more to be set up later on?

His habit of sitting alone in the TARDIS, reading books, drinking tea and listening to records presents a wonderful idea for a more weathered Doctor, but the circularity of the Eighth Doctor sitting back in the TARDIS and doing exactly the same thing subtracts his characteristic individuality.

The Doctor becomes a Jesus figure: the shroud in the morgue; his quest for identity within a human world; Pete’s exclamations of “oh my God!” at the sight of him; Grace dismissing the notion of the “Second Coming”; Grace later positioning the Master as the Devil and the metal crown of nails could just as easily be the crown of thorns (or possibly something out of Hellraiser or a BDSM device); the TARDIS granting grace to all who are its passengers.

Setting an Earth story set in San Francisco, the film gives us a more diverse cast than even the Andrew Cartmel era could give us; we see Chang Lee actually existing within Chinatown, outside of the yellowface of The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977). Although gang member perhaps isn’t the most positive role, in an era today of colourblind casting, seeing Lee exist within his actual community is a relief.

Chang Lee could have been a much better character, but he needed to be more developed. To have one of the semi-antagonists of the film but also potential companions be a gang member who carries a gun is interesting: a street urchin with a troubled past but a nice soul, becoming an adoptive son to the Master. He isn’t sure where his life if headed. When the Master grants him anything in the world, he chooses money. But this could have been the perfect way to show his hardships: surely his greatest wish is to see his family again, to get off the streets, for his friends not to die? He is redeemed through his resurrection in temporal grace, but the script could have done with another rewrite.

Unfortunately, the film is let down by its unsubtle melodrama. A poster advertises London in Chinatown, right next to where the TARDIS materialises. The Doctor reads The Time Machine (1895), because he flies a time machine. Bruce has a space alarm clock, because he’s five years old and about to be possessed by an alien. The Doctor is compared to Frankenstein, because Universal have the rights. The TARDIS’ interior is impressive, but the Eye of Harmony is still a gothic cathedral complete with flames and bats.

As Bruce, Eric Roberts is comedic and likeable – but none of that carries over to his hammy performance as the Master, complete with a cackling, maniacal laugh, an implausible false identity (whereas Roger Delgado’s Master could pass for a vicar), a propensity for ripping off his fingernails and wearing a lavish cloak (“I always dresssssss for the occasion.”) He never takes off his sunglasses, driving around SF in greased hair and a leather jacket,  whilst referring to Lee as “the Asian child”. The Master’s supposed dramatic ‘final battle’ with the Doctor devolves into nothing but the two kicking each other, the Master leaping into the Eye of Harmony whilst speaking in a comical voice, flitting between the Doctor’s face as if it were The Mask (1994). I’m not sure Christopher Lloyd could have done any better than Roberts, though it would perhaps have brought the viewing figures up – but what we needed was a British American.

But there’s something that feels so perfect when we see the Doctor, Grace and Chang Lee together, looking out upon the stars from a projection upon the console. Out there is Gallifrey and the distant galaxies. Through everything that has happened, we have the perfect Doctor/companion team – but licensing rights means that will never happen. We’ve seen glimpses into Grace’s future, with the Doctor reuniting with her a couple of times. We’ve seen the Eighth Doctor be given multiple British companions, but there’s something about a doctor and a teenager from SF that would be more appealing than another Edwardian adventuress, northern lass or a nurse from space. There’s fertile ground to be explored – it’s just a shame that this was the closure.

Fresh (1994), dir. Boaz Yakin

In some ways, Boaz Yakin’s debut film can be seen as a distant cousin to La haine (1995): a youth in the projects that cuts across multiethnic lines. All he wants is to escape it, but what happens when a child gets hold of a gun out of necessity?

Every streaming service tells you to watch this because of Samuel L. Jackson, and whilst his performance as Michael’s father is superb, he is not the draw of this film. Instead, that role goes to the titular Fresh.

I can’t say Sean Nelson gives the greatest performance. But as a child actor in such a superb film as it is, I can forgive him that. Fresh is not a sympathetic character. He manipulates the truth, yet is taken as authoritative by figures of authority, like the police, because they underestimate his youth. He strangles a dog, before shooting him. He unwillingly puts his friends closest to him in danger. He lives in a world of unsympathetic characters, where an adult woman is so desperate that she asks him for a blowjob.

Yet the film creates a contrast. The film is very well edited, and in particular it creates juxtapositions. Michael is an ‘innocent’ child in a world that has lost its innocence: he plays basketball cards at school, lives in a crowded house full of videogames, regularly meets his father for games of chess in the park.

Neither is Fresh isn’t a dark film: we see dark scenes, yet we always come back to lighter colours and an upbeat score by Stewart Copeland. These two realms coexist. As Fresh eats a bar of candy, he sees a violent shootout, left completely undisturbed. Fresh finds that chess isn’t as simple as he thought it was, instead based on strategy and rules. What is simultaneously a game of plastic pieces as played by children is also a model of violent, territorial, adult warfare.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999), dir. Stanely Kubrick

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A month or two ago I watched what could be considered Kubrick’s last film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), unless the proposed Napoleon TV miniseries ever gets off the ground – so in time for Christmas seemed the perfect time to watch his actual last film. As his only work to represent the 90s, it feels like an outsider within his canon. A.I. only got off the ground with Spielberg, whilst Aryan Papers was shelved because of a perceived similarity to Schindler’s List (1993). Kubrick will always feel most iconic with his works of the 60s-80s – not his 50s or 90s film(s).

I felt an aversion to this film: big name actors have never been a major appeal to me, so Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise‘s names worked against it for me. Why get two big Hollywood actors as the romantic leads? But of course it is more than just a simple romantic or kinky sexual drama.

(Full disclosure: I came into this film having already seen the Nostalgia Critic and Renegade Cut reviews of it)

A.I. was no masterpiece. I loved the first and final acts, bringing together universal themes about family, human identity and mortality, but the middle dragged and the Pinocchio metaphor seemed too heavy handed. Does Eyes Wide Shut represent later Kubrick better than Spielberg’s attempt to?

Unfortunately, I cannot say Eyes Wide Shut is on the same level as Kubrick’s masterpieces. It is not a flawless film, and whilst it explores some interesting ideas, it is not inherently perfect.

There is some great exploration of human sexuality here, with a degree of female empowerment, though the lead of the film remains Cruise as Bill, despite the poster suggesting a dual lead or dominant character for Kidman’s character, Alice. Some scenes, like one of the early bedroom scenes between Bill and Alice, ends up coming across more as a thesis than as cinematic.

Rather than ‘show don’t tell’, Kubrick focuses a lot of time on scenes that don’t need to be here. The iconic sequence of the film, the masquerade sex party, doesn’t enter the narrative until around 1h 20m in (it’s a 2h 40m film). There is a lot of set-up, and we end up following Bill everywhere. We see him going to a cafe. Then he goes to the costume store. Then he goes to the hotel. It works to establish aspects of the narrative, but we follow him walking around the same block for what seems like forever. I’m so used to cinema as a form of temporal manipulation, that it feels very odd for the film to progress over a very constrained amount of time (only 1-2 days), despite its such a long running time. A character will talk about the events of last night, which, as viewers, we only saw an hour ago.

Bill’s role as a doctor feels like a plot device; he goes around waving his license as if it were psychic paper. It doesn’t strengthen the character; it only makes him seem like a creep snooping around places he shouldn’t be. In a scene where Bill rents a costume late at night, the guy who runs the store ends up discovering his underage teenage daughter with two older men, yet lets her off with it. Whilst this works great in exploring the facets of sexuality, it comes completely out of nowhere and somewhat ruins the scene. It’s concluded later on, but it feels too short a mention for what should be more important.

The masquerade ball is meant to be a shocking image, filling the frame with no escape from sexual orgies everywhere. But in a world of instantly accessible online pornography, such images aren’t so shocking or abstract. (Rule 34.) The masks place it within a different form – but even that’s a fetish somewhere. Though a hyperbolic reflection of reality, but the idea of some secret password sex club based around formality, etiquette and stately homes seems slightly plausible.

But there’s a lot to love here. The classical soundtrack is fantastic; the cinematography at the masquerade ball is impeccable, and the film’s dual conclusions are great. First there is the subversive ‘anti-conspiracy’, which reveals the events of the film to be just that, events, without any inherent connection based on a minor link. Which perhaps lies within the same line of thinking that Kubrick faked the moon landing because he directed 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – an idea that still lives, thanks to Dark Side of the Moon (2002) and Room 237 (2012).

The film transports us to a New York City of festivities and Christmas lights everywhere (one of my favourite places and cinematic locations), which is enough to make me happy.

But it still remains essential viewing for the Kubrick, Kidman or Cruise fan.